5. Ulthar – Providence (20 Buck Spin)
Erratic and unpredictable. While the black/death brew of Bay Area’s Ulthar are defined by the old-school spirit and its retro element, it is these two characteristics that set them apart. Founded in 2014 by members of Mastery, Void Omnia, and Vastum, Ulthar unleashed their tentacle-like progression in full force with their 2018 debut Cosmovore. A multifaceted assault from all directions unveiled an adversary essence, set to achieve complete devastation. And it is exactly this same drive that propels them to new heights with Providence.
Proto-death metal, thrash infusions greet you at the door with “Churn”, as Ulthar open up their Lovecraft-ian realm to all who dare listen. The schizoid element, beautifully captured by the maniacal riffs and the rapid vocal delivery, build an impressive portal, a pedal to the metal attitude. Surprises are still welcome as Ulthar opens up “Undying Spear” with an acoustic passage, before once more plunging to their blackened mania. It is the layers of this work that define its depth, as Ulthar go the extra mile in meticulously constructing this world. Everything has its place in their palace, from the dark ambient interludes of “Through Downward Dynasties” to the black metal howls of “Furnace Hibernation” and the doom processions of closer “Humanoid Knot”. –Spyros Stasis
4. Duma – Duma (Nyege Nyege Tapes)
The debut by Kenyan duo Duma (“darkness” in Kikuyu) is one of the strangest pieces of art released in 2020. Within itself it carries a fusion of styles that is difficult to distill into words or a single genre. While “grindcore” might be the first association for the rhythmically driven and dark work of Sam Karugu and Martin Khanja (Lord Spike Heart), any expectations or points of reference are destroyed in the first ten seconds of Duma‘s opener “Angels and Abysses.”
Blast beats excavated from an 808 drum machine and possessed by impish demons, reverberating synths distorted beyond recognition, conga drum hits that drift between the synthetic and the organic, and waves of angry gray noise form a vast bedrock for Khanja’s dissolved screams, shrieks, and growls. This bizarre medley sounds like a hypnagogic idea of grindcore deconstructed and then reassembled in dream space, roaming down a staggered and staggering path. What’s real and what’s not becomes a pointless question here.
Equally indebted to various strains of metal and electronic music—from death and grindcore to EDM, gqom, and singeli—Duma ultimately lives in all of these genres and none of them at all, combining and recombining their elements at will to create glorious music that could easily belong to a distant future. – Antonio Poscic
3. Paysage d’Hiver – Im Wald (Kunsthall Produktionen)
With Paysage d’Hiver, Wroth of legendary Swiss cosmic black metal act Darkspace, offers a different type of drive. Where Darkspace’s gaze was always fixed on the cosmos, Paysage d’Hiver is instead looking to the chthonian. This is not a tale that travels through the darkened void, exploring its vast majesty and untold terror. No, this is a story bound to the cold earth, navigating through dark forests amid the heartless winter. Wroth provides a plethora of interpretations for this imagery, through cataclysmic assaults of fury and purpose with opener “Im Winterwald” or through dark ambient passages that explore the vast mysteries of this Earth, as in “Verweilen” and “Wurzel”.
Without fear, Paysage d’Hiver take their time exploring this world they have built, the long-form tracks allowing for a meticulous and complete investigation of this harsh reality through its textural qualities and moods. The switches of perspective are perfect, rising from the ambient abyss in true fury with “Ueber den Baeumen”, or taking on a majestic leaning of epic quality with “La Reve Lucide”, and even traveling to the underworld in a funeral-esque progression with “Weiter Immer Weiter”. Im Wald is a masterful work, tapping into all that black metal has to offer, relying on the atmospherics and the raw vibe, the grand and the minimal using the textures to build the world and the progression to dictate the narrative. A true opus. – Spyros Stasis
2. SUMAC – May You Be Held (Thrill Jockey)
On their fourth full-length, Sumac carry on their mixing of sludge, post-metal, free-rock, and abstract ambient motifs. In true noise form, the record rears its ugly head with “A Prayer for Your Path”, slowly setting its darkened ambiance. Then, what ensues brings to mind Sumac at their most furious, with the repetitive barrage of heavy basslines and fluid drumming coming full force with “May You Be Held”. It’s an exhilarating listen that reawakens the sludgecore in triumphant form before the free rock interlude arrives. Losing themselves in their guitar exploration, combining the heavy post-metal side and their noise-rock affection, Sumac assemble a magnificent long-form overture that ends in drone devastation, as the full force of the rhythm section explodes, crushing it all to smithereens.
It’s this ability to incorporate their different sides together that makes May You Be Held stand apart. While Love in Shadow forced this union between free rock improvisation and sludge tradition, May You Be Held allows for these two elements to fall into place seamlessly. It’s this absolute harmony between all the parts of the Sumac machine that make the extravagant experimentation of “The Iron Chair”, the navigation of noise spaces, the hardcore explosions of “Consumed”, and the ambient solitude of “Laughter and Silence” so devastating and mesmerizing. – Spyros Stasis
1. Imperial Triumphant – Alphaville (Century Media Records)
If the New York avant-black trio’s 2018 masterpiece Vile Luxury was a serenade for the coming apocalypse, then Alphaville is a vision of the world that survives it. Simultaneously wildly grotesque and painfully sobering, the album collapses the possible states of Western society—its good, bad, and ugly pasts, presents, and futures—into a superimposed destiny. In this tentative tomorrow, the debauchery of late-stage capitalism meshes with the quiet beauty found on the outskirts of post-digital existence.
These changes in scenery and ambiance make the music less direct and explicitly grandiose. Instead, the trio opt for touches of groveling, slowed down eccentricities akin to the permutations of Virus or Howls of Ebb, and place them amidst menacing syncopations. Resurfacing with anger, they release Gorguts-like dissonant squeals into the ether and come close to inventing Zeuhl metal during crucial segments of full-on jazz that buckle under the grandeur of their instrumentation.
Out of everything Imperial Triumphant have recorded, Alphaville is the most obvious example of how contemporary and avant-jazz’s idioms and aesthetics have influenced the band, infecting it with a sense of freedom. A boldness that allows them to reach for elements of augmented field recordings and found sounds. A unique album from a unique group. – Antonio Poscic
This has been the craziest year I remember. Things that a few months back appeared far fetched and could be considered plots from sci-fi works actually happened. So, with the whole world staying indoors, working from home and trying to make sense of everything that is happening, this entire experience has been quite something. How to maintain some balance during this time, how to retain one’s sanity? Thankfully we are living in an age where communication is trivial and entertainment is delivered to our doorsteps, so from that regard we are lucky. As dim and dark as the current situation appears, it could have been worse and we should really reflect on that.
One of the main vehicles helping us during this time is music. Heavy, experimental, interesting you name it. And from that perspective, it has been an excellent year! Once more, we have seen acts take brave new steps, honing their craft. We saw old veterans return to the front, more vibrant than ever to unleash some of their finest moments. Death metal and black metal again have been outstanding in the rich amount of flavors they arrive. Experimentalism is thankfully on the rise, as boundaries are still pushed and new realms are explored.
This is our selection of what we consider the best heavy music had to offer in 2020. Of course, numerous more excellent works have been released and we aim to feature as many of them as possible in our monthly
MetalMatters features. But, if this year had to be summarized in just 20 records, then these are presented below. Dig in, let your mind take a break from reality, and keep safe. Hopefully, 2021 will bring better days. –